In an On Campus Maclean’s article published last September titled “Universities shouldn’t provide prayer spaces”, Todd Pettigrew, an associate English professor at Cape Breton University, argued against any sort of religious accommodations being made by universities. He used as an example the University of Regina’s installation of special prayer preparation sinks and a prayer space solely for Muslim students.
“Religion is not like food,” Pettigrew wrote. “Every human being requires nutrition. No human being requires religion. Religion, which puts premium on acceptance of dogma, tends to run contrary to the primary function of a university education, which is to promote critical and independent thinking.” Pettigrew added that universities should challenge and even undermine religious convictions as opposed to encouraging them.
Despite comments like these, UTM proudly promotes its acceptance of religious diversity. A UTM Prayer Spaces webpage’s blurb says, “The University of Toronto provides facilities for members of all faith communities to practice their religion, their traditions, and rituals and is accommodating a diversity of faith-based and spiritual practices.”
There are 17 prayer spaces across the three campuses, each seating between 10 and 30 people.
Students on campus had mixed reactions to Pettigrew’s article. “I don’t have any objection to them unless I’m being asked to fund them myself,” says Corey Belford, a third-year liberal arts major. “However, I understand that UTM has a lot of facilities that I don’t use.”
UTM’s prayer spaces and resources are currently funded by students through incidental fees. The funding practice is upheld by the UTMSU.
“I think prayer rooms are [necessary],” says Tiffany Limgenco, a fourth-year CCIT student. “Especially for religions that call for prayers at specific times of the day. […] I’m Catholic, so we don’t have to pray at specific times of the day. But for our Muslim students, for example, a prayer room is key for those times.
“I have an issue with there being a brothers’ prayer room but none for the women practicing Islam,” she added.
Religious accommodations on campus became a heated topic again in December, when a York University student refused to do in-person work with female classmates for an online course, saying the interaction would be against his religious beliefs.
After the professor denied his request on the grounds of gender equality, the head of department backed the student. York University’s dean eventually ruled on the side of the student. The media backlash for the accommodation has been severe.
Universities are caught between religious diversity and secular principles. However, many students don’t view even UTM’s current standing as supporting diversity.
“I feel like the multi-faith prayer room is geared towards a Muslim-only crowd. I tried to go there once. I felt uncomfortable and unwelcome and left within five minutes of being there,” explains Vanessa Campoli, a fourth-year history student.
Fourth-year anthropology major Danielle Elson adds that she has noticed students making rude comments to volunteers handing out Bibles during the annual Christian Unity Week.
Pettigrew acknowledges (in his own way) both sides of the debate in his article. “There are middle grounds, of course: have a religious centre but have it funded by outside sources. Such compromises are attractive, but still suffer from the basic problem that dedicated university spaces for religion still serve as endorsements of those religions. And, indeed, of religion in general,” he writes.
The opinions of students at UTM show the need for referendum. It’s unclear whether the majority of UTM students support the continued funding of religious spaces and events.
Student organizations, particularly UTMSU, promise to uphold student interests as a whole. With already tight budgets, students may not want to pay for services some will never use. Others view religious spaces as a necessity and representation of UTM’s commitment to campus diversity.
In any case, opinions like Pettigrew’s are those UTM is fighting. According to UTMSU’s multi-faith spaces webpage, “UTMSU, along with students, staff, and faculty, continues to work to improve and expand multi-faith spaces at UTM so students of all faiths and backgrounds may comfortably, safely, and suitably practice their faith and excel as students.”